The term local legend has a negative connotation to it, a “could have been a contender” flavor that does not fit writer John Brantingham. His work in poetry, fiction and art is not dissimilar to his public work in the classroom, heading up workshops or at the gallery that he runs with his wife, noted artist, Ann Brantingham. There are doors on hinges at that gallery, and may you be so lucky in your life to meet two artists in your community that are always opening doors for others and welcoming them in like the Brantinghams. John Brantingham’s new book on Bamboo Dart, “Life, Orange to Pear” is a character study of time. What it does to families, the dynamics that time uses to bend and change the arc of one generation coming into its own after the stewardship of flawed adults. The idiosyncratic ways our families have shaped each of us, all here on display in “Life, Orange to Pear”. Bamboo Dart Press is thrilled to be issuing this as the second book on our imprint. The following conversation with John took place at the beginning of November. The book is available direct from us at Bamboo Dart http://www.bamboodartpress.com via the myriad of finer book stores and distributors now. Check out the trailer below featuring John reading from the book coupled with illustrations by his wife Ann.
There is an interesting divide in your work as both a poet and writer between the natural world and that of steel and glass. The tenderness in even some of the most hardened characters in your stories strikes me as the closest to that duality.
Certainly in “Life, Orange to Pear” the father walks both of these lines with his daughter. These are some of the ideas that interest me the most. There are a series of interesting false dilemmas that most people set up for themselves. I go to the term false dilemma first because I teach critical thinking and the false dilemma is one of the fallacies that I talk about a lot, but we do this naturally. One of them is that we think the world of people and nature are two different things. I find that kind of fascinating, and it makes people think that nature is foreign to them, and when they venture into a national park or purely wild space they think it is a place of danger, and it is to some degree, but no more so than an urban environment. All those wild elements of the forest exist in the city and all the wild elements of the city exist outside of it and all the truth and beauty does too. All of that lives inside of us as well. As we are both wild and urban, we are good and evil too. It’s important to understand this. I am a confirmed pacifist because I know that just below the surface is a good deal of violence that I am certainly capable of. I want to keep that down. It is part of who I am, and I don’t want it to be. That’s why it’s important to write my characters, especially those like this one who is so similar to me, with a clear vision of those parts of him that are failings. It’s important for us to see ourselves as we are.
Your other new work, “Inland Empire Afternoon” is a character study of the region of Southern California that we both live in whose flavor and mapping is spread out over forty characters, a cut-up among well defined characters instead of ideas. Did that concept come into play prior to writing this piece or in the midst of it?
I’m a huge fan of Richard Linklater, and what I did there was try to do what he did for the city of Austin in Slackers, where he bounced for five minutes from character to character building up a vision of the city and a particular group of people who lived there. It was a critical look at that urban space, but it was also a kind of love letter to it. I have lived most of my life in or around the Inland Empire and I’ve really begun to see why it is a beautiful place. It’s one of those spaces that’s ill-defined in the American conscious. Angelinos often see it as a kind ugly step-brother, but that’s just provincialism. There is beauty in all places occupied by people because there is beauty in people. I wanted to draw that out.
In your teaching (both in the classroom and in workshops) you use prompts and I have seen your ability to be lightning fast in crystalizing an idea for a writer. Did childhood role play (Dungeons & Dragons) serve as an early introduction to this technique for you?
Yes, and what I love about Dungeons and Dragons when it is played well is that it is all about bizarre improvisation. In that moment it becomes surreal and fun. Some people like to play it in a constrained way that follows strict rules and it becomes almost like a slow motion video game. If you take out the improvisation and the surreality, if you stick to slow moving rules, then it replicates reality, and there is a kind of safety and tedium to that. Like improv, it is often funny, but like improv, it doesn’t need to be. But if you take that improv element out of it, it just becomes as restrictive as reality. In my classes, which are almost never funny, I want to have that kind of movement. They need to because the people before me are different than any group of students have ever been. They have their own desires and needs, and I need to pivot to meet those needs. Creative spaces, in classrooms, writing rooms, or gaming rooms are sacred, and they need to be approached in that way.
What was the seed of the original concept that drove you and your wife Ann to start your California Imagism Gallery? Besides the obvious, what are your hopes in the years ahead for this space?
Ann and I have been talking about this a lot lately. What has marked so much of this time in the world is a kind of festering cynicism. Our goal is to move away from that. People are angry now. People often act in evil ways, but if you look through the veneer of that anger, you can perhaps find kindness and potential in all people. The motto of our gallery is “Be Kind Humans.” I told someone that, and she immediately equated kindness with weakness. My goal is to move beyond that simplistic conception of kindness, which again is a false dilemma. Those two things are not synonymous. Those two things do not even exist on the same spectrum, but we have been told again and again that they are. I disagree. That is the goal of the gallery, and I hope that it makes money, but I won’t be bothered if it doesn’t. I will be bothered if it is not a voice in a growing revolution for compassion and complexity of thought. We will host readings and artists. We will be a part of conversation and salons. We will move toward that place of humanity.
You more recent forays into flash fiction are a nice bridge between your short stories and poems. Do you find some poems morphing into fiction or the more economical flash fiction?
I think it does that to some degree, but I generally am in a flash fiction mood or a poetry mood. They are different things in my mind although they help to develop each other. In flash, I am trying to understand a character and his/her/their moment of epiphany. In my poetry, I am having the epiphany. It is autobiographical while the flash is fictional.